Tag Archives: writing

The Genius of Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat may be the most talented columnist alive, and by perusing some of his most recent articles, for instructional purposes, we can get a better understanding of his style and why it’s so effective.

When reading a Douthat column, typically the first paragraph sets the scene, almost like a panorama, giving a bird’s-eye view of the protagonists and scenery before delving into more detail.

From The Myth of Cosmopolitanism (his July 3rd article, which went viral):

NOW that populist rebellions are taking Britain out of the European Union and the Republican Party out of contention for the presidency, perhaps we should speak no more of left and right, liberals and conservatives. From now on the great political battles will be fought between nationalists and internationalists, nativists and globalists. From now on the loyalties that matter will be narrowly tribal — Make America Great Again, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England — or multicultural and cosmopolitan.

Notice how he lists the ‘actors’ all at once, and in the first sentence: rebels, Republican Party, European Union, left and right, liberals and conservatives.

Another characteristic is repetition and redundancy. ‘Left’ and ‘liberals’ are, for demonstrative purposes, tautological, but listing both gives ‘weight’ to the sentence.

And when he writes ‘Make America Great Again, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’…note the repetition, and the emphasis on ‘Make America Great Again’ in reference to Donald Trump, and all capitalized. Also the assonance (repeated ‘ea’ sound) in ‘earth’ and ‘realm’. He also uses the ‘rule of three‘, but often he extends it to five or more items.

Another characteristic is the use of contrast, from The Donald Trump Show:

USUALLY political conventions are attempts to tell a story — a story about what a party stands for, a story about where its presidential candidate came from, a story about what kind of chief executive he would be.

The Donald Trump National Convention in Cleveland (technically the Republican National Convention, but let’s be real) wasn’t really much for storytelling. Its messages were muddled, its shared agenda boiled down to hating Hillary Clinton, many of its speakers didn’t want to talk about the candidate and one declined even to endorse him.

Note how he contrasts a typical political convention, which is supposed to tell a story, to the Donald Trump convention, which didn’t.

The parenthetical statement ‘technically the Republican National Convention, but let’s be real’ adds a conversational tone to the writing.

Also ‘one declined even to endorse him’ is in reference to Ted Cruz. But by not mentioning his name, it adds wryness to the writing in reducing Ted Cruz to the gender-neutral pronoun ‘one’. It’s subtle, but little details like that matter.

Back to Cosmopolitanism, although the sentence belongs to Peter Mandler, it’s still effective:

They can’t see that what feels diverse on the inside can still seem like an aristocracy to the excluded, who look at cities like London and see, as Peter Mandler wrote for Dissent after the Brexit vote, “a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.”

Note the use of lists again, and the attention to detail: ‘Increasingly hereditary caste of politicians’…not just any politicians, but a hereditary caste.

They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.

Again, the use of contrast: ‘Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project,’ to show the hypocrisy of the elite.

They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.

The writing is rich with indignation, with words and phrases like ‘self-serving’, ‘it alone’, ‘their vision’, ‘caste’, and ‘rule the world’ – all packed into one sentence.

Figurative language such as ‘history’s arc bending inexorably away’ produces images in the reader’s mind of a curved trajectory such as that of a cannonball. Also, the adverb ‘inexorably’ modifying ‘away’ adds more detail and specificity to the sentence.

Also, the introductory clause ‘they can’t see that’ is repeated (anaphora), adding rhythm and emphasizing how the elite are blinded by their hubris.

Note his extensive vocabulary: ‘paeans’ and ‘coteries’, words that usually don’t come up in everyday conversation, and adding richness to the writing and boosting Douthat’s own credibility as a highly educated expert. In The Trump Show, he uses synecdoche in a sentence, another ten-dollar word. Yeah I know there’s a widely-shared ‘study’ that shows how using ‘big’ words doesn’t make you sound smarter, and I can tell you it’s bunkum. Ceteris paribus, someone who uses bigger words will sound smarter than someone who doesn’t [1]. Also, specialized, well-targeted words that have a specific meaning can add both variety to writing and succinctness, instead of having to use six words when one may suffice.

Now that we’ve focused on the structure, it’s also worth asking: Why are Ross Douthat’s articles so well-received, both by liberals and conservatives, and always go viral, whereas Paul Krugman’s articles do not?

Paul Krugman and Ann Coulter are like opposite sides of the same coin, and although I am partial to the latter, they are stalwarts of what I call ‘pre-2013′ online journalism, which is partisan and emotive. By contrast, as I discuss in Solvent Part 1, post-2013 journalism is more nuanced and intellectual, and focuses on ‘shared narratives/themes’ that transcend the left-right political divide, rather than just browbeating your readers with your political opinions. This new intellectual style as epitomized by sites like Vox.com, Priceonomics, and WaitButWhy is seeing rapid growth, whereas traffic and readership for opinionated political blogs peaked years ago. This is possibly due to readers growing weary of angry partisanship and yearning for more evolved discourse that touches on existential/humanistic matters and ‘shared narratives’ such as:

-anomie and ennui arising from rapid societal (both economic and social) changes and the breakdown of the ‘family structure’

-distrust of elites and central planning

-anxiety about the economy

-will technology eliminate all jobs?

-existential questions such as ‘What if we’re all living in a computer simulation?’

-how to find meaning in life

-social anxiety, existential depression, social isolation, etc.

-how to afford healthcare, tuition, etc., student loan debt being too high

and so on…

These are questions and issues that are vexing to everyone, beyond the ‘left’ and the ‘right’, and Ross Douthat frequently addresses them, especially the first two items.

Importantly, Douthat makes an effort to empathize with his subjects and his readers, despite being a member of the ‘elite’ himself, to understand and be mindful of why there is resentment against the elite, and to understand why people make the choices they do or hold the beliefs they have, as described by Scott in his recent post: HOW THE WEST WAS WON:

This is true in every case except with the cultures we consider our outgroups – in the US, white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans; in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters. In both cases, their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist.

Rather than ridicule, dismiss, or belittle the ‘outgroup’, Douthat lends an ear. But it’s not so much about trying to being right or wrong – rather it’s about understanding why the stakes have become so high, and why there is so much passion about these issues.
From the Art of War, victory isn’t through attrition, but by reconciliation that renders further conflict unnecessary, ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’ It’s very difficult to defend a moral high ground or to change minds; it’s easier to find common ground and understanding. Like why there so much resentment towards the elite (a common criticism is that the elite are insulated from the consequences of their actions), not so much whether the elite are right or wrong policy-wise. Douthat explores the meta-discussion and the humanistic angle to issues, not just the issue itself isolated in a vacuum removed from the human condition. For example, instead of explaining why ‘guns are good or bad,’ Ross implores, ‘why do people care so much about this issue, and what it says about America and society.’ He takes it to the next level, the meta level.

Although Paul Krugman is a Nobel Laureate, which lends a lot of credibly (even though he has been wrong on many occasions), he can’t elicit the necessary visceral reaction, the meeting of the minds, that is necessary to make readers on the sideline (those who aren’t already initiated) actually like him and want to share his ideas. Everyone is wrong occasionally, myself included, but when you put yourself on a pedestal or sanctimoniousness and infallibility, the harder the fall from grace and the more inclined people are to push back and go after your weak spots. Yes, Paul Krugman is popular, but his columns read like a shill rant, hammering the same partisanship and divisiveness over and over again and devoid of worldly introspection.

[1] Big words may backfire if they are misused.

On Writing

These two stories are going viral:

13 Questions to Ask Before Submitting to a Literary Journal

There Is No Handbook for Being a Writer

Too many people want writing ‘hacks’ and ‘tips’, without understanding that writing is a market, which means that for writing to be read, it typically has to meet some sort of demand. Famous people can create their own markets, but unknowns have to latch onto existing ones. There’s too much advice that extols the virtues of writing for the sake of writing (such as boosting word counts, writing more, etc.), while ignoring the second half of the equation: the reader, and how the writer intends to make his writing read.

Long-form seems to be very popular online these days. Anyone can hammer out a 500-word essay, but it takes 3,000-5,000 words or more to stand out. Long-form may be the best approach right now for writers hoping to gain visibility, as research shows long-form articles are more likely to go viral:

An exceptionally well-written long-form article can help cement your reputation as an expert in a field.

Related: Internet Journalism in a Post-2013 Era: Writing Articles that Go Viral

There is also evidence long-from articles rank better in Google than shorter articles, probably due to long articles being shared more.

Once you build a brand with blogging (writing long-form), you can begin selling books through self-publishing. Those who enjoy your writing in 5,000-word chunks will be more inclined pay to read your 50,000-word book.

For better or worse, IQ and innate ability plays a role, too. If your score on the verbal part of the SAT and or GRE was average, you should probably avoid literary writing or traditionally-published fiction (instead, use Amazon or write non-fiction). Published literary fiction requires a unique talent very few have. Even published genre fiction such as that of Michael Crichton and Stephen King requires a type of talent few possess.

You probably cannot go into writing for the money, and the odds of success as measured by sales and recognition are slim. As I explain in Pencil Pushers and the Miracle of Capitalism, writing pays very little relative to the amount of talent and effort required to succeed at it. You need to be in the top 1% skill and probably IQ to make the same amount of money as a mediocre 9-5 worker who is in the 50th percentile of IQ.

It’s vastly easier to make $40k a year driving a truck than making $400 selling your writing to a magazine or a journal, yet too many people do the latter because they seek ‘validation’ in having their name and ‘work’ printed.

To recap: writing for the sake of writing is not a virtue in and of itself, and is unlikely to lead to success; focus on understanding the type of writing people want to read. Consider writing long-form articles to build your brand. Understand your skills, strengths, and limitations. And don’t initially expect to make a lot of money relative to the amount of effort you put in.

Related:

Terry Pratchett, IQ, Practice, and Mastery
So much for that 10,000 hour rule

The Stark Realities of Self-Publishing

A cold dose of reality on the fanciful world of self-publishing:

I just self-published my first novel and am extremely disappointed

Most people on here seem to be having flaming success in self-publishing field, but unfortunately I haven’t been graced with such luck – it’s been out for nearly two weeks on Amazon and I haven’t sold even one copy yet. It’s cheap enough at 0.99 – I have no idea why I haven’t gotten even one bite.

But I thought those evil publishers, or as some call ‘gatekeepers‘, are supposed to be a hindrance. You’re supposed to ‘choose yourself‘, man. Whatever you do, stay away from those evil publishers who will try to stiff you on the royalties of your nonexistent sales.

The reality is, there is simply too much content (most of it mediocre or awful) being churned out and not enough eyeballs.

Both old-school publishing and self-publishing publish a whole fucking fuckbucket of books: in the United States alone you have about 300,000 new books added per year to the traditional pile, and Bowker claims the number for self-publishing is somewhat higher (~400,000 in 2012) if you count them by ISBNs, and many self-published authors do not use ISBNs, so when you add in other countries and territories, you could be looking at twice or more of that number.

The survivorship bias is huge, and all you hear are the successes, never the failures (although the Reddit thread above is an exception). To say EL James selling millions of 50 Shades of Grey is proof that self-publishing is viable is like saying the Powerball is good investment because some people match all the numbers.

When self-publishing, your completion are the ‘gatekeepers’. Because the barriers to entry are so low, it’s everyone else who doesn’t have much talent that is competing with you, each pushing their barely-readable ‘book’ unto an increasingly scarce pool of buyers that have likely already been burned on low-quality self-published books (grammatical errors are a feature, not a bug) and are more cautious about taking a dip of the wading pool of sludge [1] that all too often constitutes self-publishing.

Traditional publishing still has a role: being a firewall that separates readers from un-publishable bilge and promoting authors who have genuine talent and something worthwhile to say but may not have a platform to promote it.

From SWJ: The publishing industry’s hunt for the next blockbuster has given rise to an elite new club: the million-dollar literary debut

In a whirlwind week as publishers read the manuscript last December, Harper Collins’s Ecco editorial director Megan Lynch made a pre-emptive offer to publish the novel for at least $1 million. “I never imagined people would respond that way in a million years,” said Ms. Sweeney, 55. The book, about four adult siblings whose anticipated inheritance has all but evaporated because of one brother’s bad behavior, is scheduled to be published next March.

But isn’t traditional publishing supposed to be dying…this should not be happening. Those evil, exploitative, bankrupted traditional publishers and their million-dollar contracts.

From How the left spreads misinformation, fear, and bad advice to ‘save/protect’ people:

…traditional book publishing houses are flooded with manuscripts, so apparently, I guess, despite thousands and thousands of articles slamming traditional publishing, word still hasn’t gotten out about how ‘evil’ traditional publishers are. Just another example of the paternalist left acting like they know what is best for everyone else, giving bad advice to ‘save’ people. According to the left, it’s not your fault your precious manuscript was rejected, it’s those greedy corporations and rich people who are to blame.

The average Amazon self-publisher makes a couple hundred dollars a year and that doesn’t include costs such as covers and editing, whereas 6-figure or 7-figure book publishing deals are not all that uncommon. For example, memory champion Joshua Foer received a jaw-dropping $1.3 million advance from Penguin to write his critically acclaimed debut book Moonwalking with Einstein. Poor guy. But of course, we can’t let obvious counter-examples stand in the way of the well-worn leftist narratives that ‘traditional publishing is dead’, ‘traditional pubishing gatekeepers are suppressing talent’, or ‘traditional publishing exploits authors’.

Bloggers like Mike, Aaron, Vox, and James are successful with self-publishing because they already have huge audiences. They wrote books only after becoming well-known through blogging and other mediums; they didn’t self-publish to build the audience – the audience was already there. Traditional publishing, on the other hand, puts the books in front of people’s eyes at the bookstores and on Amazon through professional promotions, which helps authors who have the talent to write quality work but have little or no pre-established audience. The audience is what matters – no audience, no sales. Period. The left doesn’t understand this fundamental rule.

There is a false victimhood mentality that seems pervasive in self-publishing…blaming others (like ‘gatekeepers’) for failing to get traditionally published. Aspiring writers need to accept the harsh reality that they likely have no talent and should pursue more fruitful endeavors. Don’t quit your day job.

But that doesn’t mean self-publishers can’t make money. Some make a lot, but these are authors who:

-got lucky. Sometimes a book with no redeeming qualities is a huge seller; other times, good books are ignored.

-have genuine talent at writing, and the people who review their books are real customers, not shills. Legitimate reviews tend to be enthusiastic and detailed, and through social proof persuade others to buy the book as word of mouth kicks in.

-produce a A LOT of books. These books tend to be of mediocre or poor quality, are often priced less than $5, and have low individual sales and few reviews, but the combined sales can be significant. The emphasis is quantity over quality.

-spend a lot of money to promote their books, including paid reviews. Due to the vast supply of books, getting reviews is very difficult.

-are really good at networking.

-already have an established brand/audience/newsletter. This is critical. Tim Ferris, who originally was traditionally published, already had a huge brand when he went the self-published route with The 4-Hour Chef. Vox Day, Aaron, Mike, Altucher, etc..all have large audiences from blogging. Andy Weir had an extremely popular website and had achieved earlier fame with a short story, The Egg.

Mr. Weir also had genuine talent attributable to a high-IQ, allowing him to quickly grasp the finer intricacies of storytelling and publishing that often allude many aspiring writers. It’s not like he was just some average slob who woke up one day and wrote The Martin. Not to make this into an HBD post, but again and again, the most successful of any intellectual-type endeavor tend to have high IQs.

[1] If you think I’m being too hard on self-published books, the evidence by writers and readers suggests self-published books are inferior to traditionally-published books.

A couple months ago, against my better judgement, I personally bought some self-published books. One was passable but boring to read, kinda like a school assignment completed by an unenthusiastic student. The second, essentially, consisted of articles cut and pasted from the author’s website and strung together to form a ‘book’. The content, overall, was generic instead of unique or truly insightful, based on my own experience in the field and my qualifications to assess said content. The third ‘book’ had maybe two paragraphs of useful, unique content; the rest was generic and copied from the author’s website. About half the ‘book’ consisted of cut and pasted transcripts of postcast interviews by the author that could be found for free and needed to be edited or summarized for brevity. A transcript may be useful, but it’s not a book. Marketing something as a ‘book’ (instead of a compilation) and then filling it with verbatim blog posts and transcripts seems somewhat deceptive.

Defending ‘Academic’ Writing

What is wrong with ‘academic’ writing?

Academics Stink at Writing – Steven Pinker

Why Is Academic Writing So Unpleasant to Read?>

Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?

Believe it or not, academics actually know how to write, but some of this ‘jargon’ is for brevity. How should a scientist describe the concept of heritability without words like ‘phenotype’ ‘chromosomal’ and ‘autosomal’? Of course, he could dumb it down by omitting those words and replacing them with their definitions, but that would make the writing longer and be unnecessary to his intended audience who already know what that those words mean. The writer assumes the reader has sufficient knowledge of the necessary terminology, as explained by Cass R. Sunstein in In Defense of Academic Jargon:

Plain language has its virtues, and some academic jargon is pointlessly obscure, but when specialists are speaking to other specialists, it’s perfectly fine to use specialized language. These passages could be translated into ordinary language only at a high cost, resulting in a loss of precision, excessive length and unnecessary definitions. For the intended audience, phrases such as “concavity of the utility function,” “the binary signal case” and “leximin rule” are familiar, not arcane.

Most jargon is amenable to a Google or Wikipedia search. It will take some extra effort on the reader’s part, but this is a small price to pay if the intent is understanding a new or difficult concept.

Verbosity, unlike jargon, can be avoided and may be problematic in excess. But I think it’s part of the ‘reading experience’. Readers have a expectation that certain texts will be long, and writers meet those expectations through circumlocutions. Also if you enjoy what you’re writing about, you’ll probably be inclined to use more words than necessary out of enthusiasm.

This passage from anomalyuk:

Nobody in the system has the aim of destroying society. That is an incidental byproduct of the competition for power. When a particular leftist trend gets to the stage where the destruction of the governing institutions becomes imminent, some conservative will actually be allowed to stop it. After all, the individuals in the permanent establishment are choosing the holy policy in order to retain their power; if it comes to a choice between accepting a less holy policy or seeing the institution in which their power resides fall apart, there is less to lose by compromising on purity.

…could be compressed to:

Nobody in the system wants to destroy society. That is an incidental byproduct of the competition for power. When destruction is near, someone will be allowed to intercede. This is because stability, which their (the establishment) power resides on, supersedes ideological purity that may be destabilizing.

An example is George W. Bush ratifying the 2008 bank bailouts, which seemed to go against the Republican echoes of ‘free market’ purity, but was ultimately a necessity and a success. But the civilization or ideology may stand for something not worth preserving, but that is another issue.

But back to the topic of academic writing, if you want easy-to-read stuff, read sales letters, which by deliberately sacrificing richness of language are designed to be accessible to as many people as possible in order to maximize…sales. Or read Tony Robbins or Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad books. The inability to understand academic prose is more of a deficiency of the reader’s comprehension or patience than a deficiency of the writer to communicate.

Pencil Pushers and The Miracle of Capitalism

Although I often rail against collectivism, an exception is collectivism in the context of a firm. The miracle of capitalism and comparative advantage is that it gives a high standard of living to otherwise mediocre people.

To go somewhat on a tangent, consider the somewhat grim prospects of self-publishing (indie) writing, a topic I have discussed here, here, and here.

Successful self-publishers will often extol the benefits of publishing on Amazon – higher royalty rates, no political biases, creative control, etc – glossing over the fact that traditional publishers offer two thing Amazon doesn’t: promotion and an advance, the latter which – contrary to all the doom and gloom about traditional publishing – can be quite big for debut authors. Guy like Vox will bemoan the political ‘bias’ in the publishing world (gatekeepers), and maybe he’s right, but if you go to Barnes and Noble, for example, you’ll see thousands of books spanning many genres and many publishing houses. I find it hard to believe that books with conservative themes are being systematically suppressed. I was at a Borders (this was before it shut down) and there was an entire shelf full of various conservative-themed books from Ann Coulter, Johnah Goldberg, Mark Levin, etc.

But the earnings for writers (both indie and traditional) are highly skewed, an extreme ‘winner-take-all’ distribution where the mean is substantially grater than the median. An example of such a distribution is the long-normal distribution. Half of self published-authors earn less than $500 a year and the mean is $10,000.

The skew for salaried income is less (a 2-1 ratio of mean vs median, vs. 20-1 in writing):

So in other words, your typical writer will make as much a third world worker…pretty bad. Like with regular jobs, there is likely a correlation with IQ, with smarter writers likely earning more than less intelligent ones. The smartest and savviest self-publishers are successfully able to build brands and sell thousands of books, making tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Mike Cernovich, for example, sold 20,000 copies of his book Gorilla Mindset in eight months. With each copy costing $10 and Amazon taking 30%, the total take is $140,000. But there are probably other expenses, too, like cover design, editing, etc. So maybe we can extrapolate a total profit of $150,000 for the year, assuming additional sales for the remaining four months. According to the income percentile graph above, that puts him in the top 5% or the 95% percentile. Mike as well as Vox Day, who sold thousands of copies of Cuckservative and SJWs Always Lie), are unquestionably hugely successful authors who earn probably more than 99% or even 99.9% of writers – both traditional and indie. Mike himself says he earns more than 99% of writers.

But, as successful as the are, this isn’t a huge sum of money, relatively speaking, for the rarity of talent involved. Mike and Vox, as well as James Altucher and other writers, are among the top 1% or even .5% of IQ, skill, and talent compared to their peers. These people are at the very top of their game. But some no-name Microsoft pencil pusher, on the other hand, can make $100,000-200,000 a year. You’ve never heard of him, and his internet presence is probably invisible and he has 0 twitter followers, but he (as well as thousands of other pencil and paper pushers at other large corporations) make a lot of money despite being somewhat mediocre in talent and skill. The pencil pusher is in the top 70% of of his game (the top 1% guys make a million a year), not top 1%. Then you have regular workers, who are average (50% percent) in terms of IQ, skill, and talent – they make $20,000-$40,000 a year – which is the same as top 5% writers who also likely also have top 5% IQ and skill.

So what is the meaning of this. It comes down to the miracle of capitalism, and, more specifically, comparative advantage. A large, successful firm is able to generate so much economic value, as well as through comparative advantage extract value from people of varying skill levels and talents, that it is able to pay ordinary people a livable income, whereas ordinary people on their own would make far less ($500/year for the typical indie writer). These average, mediocre people should be grateful, not resentful to the ’1%’ who create so much economic value so they (mediocre people) can have jobs that pay a livable income.

Some say the US government is analogous to a giant corporation, in which case bureaucrats are vastly overpaid relative to skill and competence.

But with the ‘shrinking middle‘ and the rise of temp and gig jobs, the sun may be setting on the pencil pusher era. Consequentially, since 2008, profit margins for S&P 500 companies have surged, as management re-evaluates why they are paying mediocre employees high salaries. The result is lower real wages and a more competitive economic environment where individuals are more accountable for whether they succeed or fail, with talent and skill being paramount, which for better or worse, benefits smart, competent people and hurts those of middling intelligence who have just been riding the coattails and benevolence of the most productive.

The Writing Boom

First, the grim statics of writing for publication, which I’m sure every author is aware of:

The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing

Thinking of Self-Publishing Your Book in 2013? Here’s What You Need to Know

This passage stood out:

1. The number of books being published every year has exploded. Bowker reports that over three million books were published in the U.S. in 2010. The number of new print titles issued by U.S. publishers has grown from 215,777 in 2002 to 316,480 in 2010. And in 2010 more than 2.7 million “non-traditional” titles were also published, including self-published books, reprints of public domain works, and other print-on-demand books. In addition, hundreds of thousands of English-language books are published each year outside the U.S.

In an era of instant messaging, selfies, and on-demand entertainment, it’s understandable how one could believe that the fiction market is dead – for both writers and readers – but it’s not, at least not for writers. In spite of our culture of instant gratification, more people than ever are taking to the tedious craft, the result being a writing boom – particularity in fiction, but also non-fiction – of the likes never before seen, which means that writers today have to fight tooth and nail to rise above the publishing quicksand of obscurity.

In spite of the complaints about traditional publishing, such as authors not earning much money on royalties or poor sales, publishing houses and agents are inundated with manuscripts – a tsunami – from aspiring writers, with no end in sight, which is surprising given that digital media has also become so pervasive. Who wants to write books, anyway, when there is Netflix and Facebook? Why are so many people writing despite the long odds and the pervasiveness of cheap digital entertainment as distractions? I pondered this for a little while, and finally found some reasons:

1. Baby boomers are retiring, which means they have a lot of free time for writing books.

2. Younger people, faced with a perpetually anemic labor market, also have a lot of spare time to write, with genres of choice being fantasy, youth fiction, and introspection and existentialism.

3. Due to mass education, related to number 2, there are a lot of people who are educated enough to write books with intelligible prose, versus a generation ago when the labor market was better and people weren’t as overeducated.

4. Writing is an inexpensive hobby for lean economic times, compared to, say, golf or art collecting.

5. Related to number 4, the barriers to entry in writing are low, but mastery or success is almost impossible unless you are either very lucky or talented. Self-publishing makes writing very inexpensive, with thousands of writers competing for scraps of attention and sales, and successful self-publishers few and far between.

6. Writing taps into a narcissistic, vainglorious desire to leave a mark, to defy mortality. If millennials are more narcissistic than earlier generations, it could partially explain the writing boom.

7. The rise of writing gurus, particularity online. They’re probably hundreds of writing blogs catering to legions of wannabee writers. It’s mostly a blind leading the blind situation of the gurus only being marginally better writers than their followers, only famous because of promotion and hype, not because they are great writers.

8. The rise of the debut celebrity. Despite the doom and gloom about publishing, six and even seven-figure contracts and film deals for debut authors are not at all uncommon, recent examples being Andy Weir and Pierce Brown. Unfortunately, this gold rush fuels the bottom line for gurus who sell overpriced writing services to novice writers who have dreams, however far-fetched, of being the next Weir or Brown. And although there are more big debuts, there are also many, many more authors, too.

9. Writing is ‘cool’ and transcendent, more than ever. In a news cycle dominated by misbehaving celebrities and various petty insubstantial matters, writing taps into a certain authenticity that many long for, as a way of transcending the chaos and minutia of everyday life to answer a higher calling. You’re not just putting words to paper, you’re changing the world, changing minds (or at least you hope so).

How a person with an SAT score of a 1000 writes

An SAT score of 1000 on the post-1995 test is unimpressive, corresponding to an IQ of around 100. Most people who score that low (either on an IQ test or on the SAT) keep it private. According to those celebrity SAT lists you see everywhere, even most actors score higher than that, yet the author is in finance – a field that one would assume is more intellectually rigorous than the performing arts. Weird how that works, and maybe this agrees with my earlier post about the liberals arts possibly being harder than STEM, even though it pays less. *

Since people only brag about high scores, how can we assess everyone else based on public information? One way is through writing samples, but even those can be misleading, however, as some people with above average intelligence will either lazily or deliberately use poor punctuation and sentence structure.

This example is particularly informative, since he posts his SAT score and numerous writing samples that are written to the best of his ability. The author is 35, implying he took the post-1995 version of the SAT, which has a lower ceiling than the pre-1995 version. Unfortunately, we don’t have the breakdown of the score by math and verbal. If the math is substantially higher than the verbal, then maybe the IQ higher than 100, as the math portion of the SAT has a much lower ceiling than the verbal. As his writing is cogent, albeit simple, my guess is the breakdown is 550 math and 450 verbal – or about a 100 IQ. A lot of people may assume a 400-range verbal means semi-literate, but apparently not.

*But how can that be? Isn’t STEM always harder? It depends. My belief is that there are varying ‘ceilings’ depending on career and accomplishments. Math & physics may have the highest ceiling of all, but this is only applicable to a tiny percentage of the population who are working on unsolved problems in the theoretical domain. But I think in comparing your typical engineer vs. your typical author (not Amazon self-publishing, but by a traditional publishing house), I think the author (due to the difficulty of getting published and the necessity of good prose and plot) comes out slightly ahead. At the professional level, there are more people who can do math well than can write well**, which could suggest that professional-level fiction and prose writing is more intellectually demanding than professional-level STEM work. At the sub-professional level (low-paying service sector work, for example), talent in either domain is not needed.

** This is just my hunch, but I suspect there is some truth to it as evidenced by all the complaints about how college graduates can’t write well. Bad teaching? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just hard.

The Problem With Self-Publishing

After a couple days of downtime due to server failure, the site is back online.

To all 0-5 followers who will see it..lol. Mike is right 95% of the time, but I don’t share his enthusiasm for self-publishing and social media as away for the average person to affect change. The anti-SJW movement, which related to #gamergate, took off not because of no-names like me, but because of major players with lots of Twitter followers who brought it to attention. Same for #cuckservative, and other movements and memes. I liken tweeting to screaming from a rooftop…where each home is spaced about two miles apart – pretty much useless unless you have a a lot of followers, which the vast majority of Twitter users don’t have. Twitter is kinda like an atom, in which the electron rings have vast gaps in between them, where each electron represents a user. Although the web has millions – maybe billions – of users, these users tend to be concentrated among maybe 100 popular sites, so the web is mostly empty with the exception of some clusters.

In self-publishing, the ‘gatekeepers’ are your competition, because the barriers to entry are so low that unless you are already well-known, without a lot self-promotion no one will ever find your work – and isn’t that the role of those awful publishers, to promote your work. All self-publishing does is create more work for you unless you already have fans to buy and promote your work, which the vast majority of self-publishers don’t, as I discuss in more detail here. The majority of self-published books don’t sell…if self-publishing were so great, traditional publishers wouldn’t be inundated with manuscripts from aspiring writers…all those newbie writers would go strait to Amazon without even considering traditional publishing, which is obviously not the case. It’s just hype, and part of this blog is about promoting realism and dispelling hype wherever it may reside.

Another problem is fake/fluff reviews, which makes it hard for buyers to ascertain the quality of a book.

STEM vs. Liberal Arts: Which is Harder?

The essay Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? got me thinking – not about the subject matter of angst-ridden young adults and mass shootings, but the inimitable eloquence of the writing style itself. The precision and skill of how the words were chosen and arranged to make the essay informative yet galvanizing.

So, is STEM easier or harder than the liberal arts? The online opinion seems to skew in favor of STEM being harder, but it would be nice to have an official academic study about this. Another, perhaps related, question is: which subjects are perceived to be harder? For student who found high school easy and got good grades, which subjects are they more likely to major in college, versus c-grade high school students. I imagine students who perform poorly in high school, once in college (assuming they go), will choose subjects they perceive to be easier. If c-grade high school graduates are choosing STEM in collage, and a-grade high school graduates are choosing literature, philosophy, and history, then STEM may be easier. And then you would have to look at the graduation rate and GPA. If c-grade students who major in STEM outperform c-grade students who major in liberal arts, it would further lend credence to liberal arts being harder.

Although the data shows the humanities have a higher GPA than STEM, this does not necessarily prove the humanities are easier:

Major Average GPA
Education 3.36
Foreign Language 3.34
English 3.33
Music 3.30
Religion 3.22
Biology 3.02
Psychology 2.98
Economics 2.95
Engineering 2.90
Math 2.90
Chemistry 2.78

It could be that all the a-grade students are flocking the the humanities, while the c-grade ones go to STEM. The a-grade students, possibly being smarter, get higher grades than the c-grade students.

If SAT scores are a good proxy for high school performance and IQ, we would expect low-scorers to major in ‘easier’ subjects:

Interestingly, literature, social science, and linguistic majors have as high of SAT scores as most STEM majors. Although math and physical sciences rank among the highest, the difference isn’t substantially higher than that of the literature majors. The major ‘liberal arts’ is only four points lower than biology. The study also doesn’t tell us the completion rate, only the choice of major.

It’s also been observed that the verbal sections of both the GMAT, ACT, and SAT are harder than the quantitative sections, with top verbal scores being much rarer than top math scores, although this can be attributed to the verbal sections having a higher ‘ceiling’ than the math sections.

One possibility is that the threshold to become ‘good’ at math is lower than to be ‘good’ at literature and writing. Maybe it’s easier or more attainable for your typical high school graduate to grasp advanced calculus and special relativity than, say, publish an article in the New Yorker.

Perhaps STEM is more inclusive than liberals arts. It seems there is a sort of pretentiousness in liberal arts, especially with literature and the divide between ‘low-brow’ and ‘high-brow’ tastes. Another question is, how do you define ‘hard’ and ‘complexity’; what makes a subject ‘complicated’? Is it the number of things you have to memorize, the quantity of reading, the synthesis of information? STEM may be easier because usually the only thing that matters is the correct answer or outcome, not the ‘prettiness’ of the underlying mathematics. Whether you pass or fail depends on your ability to product correct responses to technical questions, not necessarily elegant responses. The liberal arts, especially writing for publication, requires not only a unique perspective but the ability transcribe your ideas into prose that is grammatically correct and enthralling to the editor and reader. It’s like imagine in math you not only have to produce the correct answer, but are restricted to a certain set of symbols in your derivation, but, on the other hand, some STEM problems are very difficult.

IQ and Writing

It’s almost a truism that people who dismiss IQ tend to sound really stupid, or at the very least, intellectually dishonest in the process. To the left, IQ is either meaningless or redefined to only measure the skills that they deem to be important, while other more concrete skills such as memorization or learning ability don’t count. According to the politically correct, anecdotal evidence of a smart person doing something dumb or stock characters of the ‘absent minded genius’ supersedes all academic literature on the subject and the empirical reality that smarter people do indeed tend achieve more in life.

Came upon this Are you smarter than a fiction writer?

This quote stood out: “The ability to memorize facts does not mean that you are smart”

Well, it doesn’t have to be trivia and facts; it could be something practical for a job setting, such as the ability to quickly memorize a set of instructions. Numerous studies have shown smarter people learn faster than people of average intelligence and retain more of what they study, in addition to an above average ability to forge non-obvious connections between pieces of knowledge. This is invaluable for any technical endeavor, including writing. Because smart people learn more efficiently than everyone else, they tend to know more, too. How this pertains to writing? It’s reasonable to assume there is an IQ threshold that must be met to produce intelligible prose, a higher threshold to learn the basics of grammar, and an even higher one to have the vocabulary to make your prose interesting. But last part has a subjective element – some people prefer simple books – and editors can fix grammar and spelling errors if the plot has promise; furthermore, people for whom English is a second language or those who prefer math over writing may have weakness in those areas – even with an above average IQ. According to megafoundation.org, vocabulary has the highest correlation (0.8) with overall IQ of any individual measure of intelligence. This makes sense: smarter people tend to read more books and retain more of the words they read, as well as having a better ability to infer the meaning of a word from its context. But a bigger vocabulary doesn’t necessarily lends itself to better writing, since writing – once you move beyond the mechanics and the ability to form a cogent plot – has a large subjective component in determining quality.

On a related note, from Halfsigma: (link is dead, sorry):

Take, for example, Frank McCourt, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling memoir Angela’s Ashes. Defying the David Brooks prescription of hard work beginning from an early age, Frank McCourt had a deprived childhood which didn’t involve a whole lot of writing practice, and then he worked as a public school teacher in New York City for most of his life, and after he retired from teaching, he turned out his award-winning memoir. In his book Teacher Man, McCourt admits to being too lazy to finish his doctoral program at Trinity College, and admits to hitting the bottle quite a bit, but he also admitted to scoring in the 99th percentile on the GRE. When it comes to writing a memoir, apparently a high IQ, plus luck, trumps being a hard worker.

Lion is probably right about IQ playing an important role in the construction of grammatically correct sentences and the general writing process; however, an above average IQ is a necessary but insufficient condition for being a published (if that’s how we define ‘success’) writer. For every success like Frank McCourt, there are many writers that fail to get published for reasons that cannot be attributed to not being smart enough. James Altucher, a genius, failed to get his fiction and short stories published, only to have success later in life writing self-help books. The difference between being a competent writer and a competent and successful writer boils down to luck and other factors largely outside of the writer’s control, but competence requires IQ.

Related: Terry Pratchett, IQ, Practice and Mastery